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Tackling Library Sacred Cows with Structured Debate

by on February 16, 2016

In “How Structured Debate Helps Your Team Grow,” Ben Dattner introduces the tool that teams can use to defuse groupthink and make it safe to speak up for change. An individual might be labeled a “heretic” and shunned for pushing back on group norms. Silence, however, may feed into groupthink and cause an organization to miss out on opportunities to improve and innovate. Instead of going it alone, Dattner suggests we try randomly assigning team members to argue for and against the issue under discussion. “Structured debates can provide the opportunity to rigorously discuss and dispute interpretations of current trends, as well as future predictions, in a kind of organizational ’safe mode‘ that enables teams to explore risks without putting individual members of the team at internal risk,” he said.[1]

I’ve challenged myself and others to take a hard look at our sacred cows since attending the 2015 Public Library Association’s Results Boot Camp led by Sandra Nelson and June Garcia. In the camp, we discussed the many hours staff spend on doing things that have little, if any, impact on serving our customers. For example, well-meaning artistic staff can spend hours creating mind-blowing monthly bulletin boards. Yes, they delight, but do they transform or reach new audiences in proportion to the hours spent monthly de-installing, prepping, and installing the new? Can we market books without the equivalent of the Macy’s display window behind them?

Structured Debate to the Rescue

When I challenged sacred cows like the traditional book club, staff and colleagues became very frustrated with me; I felt physical harm could be my fate! Dattner’s structured debate suggestion might save me. Members of the team charged to argue for the status quo could argue that the book club is a staple of public libraries, deservingly so, as they invite everyone into our libraries, make excellent use of the “library as place,” promote literature and reading, and give us opportunities to regularly interact with our customers, thereby nailing many of our service goals and objectives.

Debaters from the other side could quote Nelson and Garcia’s work: “If an activity serves less than 5 percent of the target audience, it is not effective. No further evaluation is necessary.”[2] Many staff put in hours of preparation only to serve the same two to five people month after month. (One book group leader said she didn’t want any new attendees to join her monthly book club! The few devoted attendees were all she needed.) Becky Spratford, author of Support Groups for Book Discussion Leaders and acclaimed blogger of “RA for All,” agrees. On our telephone call she said, “Book clubs should evolve.” She mentioned Skype meetings, notes posted on library blogs for virtual users, and ways to support community book groups. “Don’t be afraid to scrap a flagging group and revive it later in a completely revamped format, or not at all!”[3]

With structured debate, we could all save face but still have spirited discussions about our sacred cows. Are they serving our strategic plans? Are we maximizing our shrinking resources, and moving our needle forward toward innovation and transformation?  We just may bring the book club into the twenty-first century and hook more of our target audiences.

Next, let’s have a structured debate about the unwieldy, outdated, reference collection taking up prime real estate in many libraries today. What sacred cows does your library have that need examination and a structured debate?


[1] Ben Dattner. “How Structured Debate Helps Your Team Grow.” Harvard Business Review, December 10, 2015.

[2] Sandra Nelson and June Garcia. “How Can You Evaluate the Effectiveness of Activities?” PLA Results Boot Camp, 2015.

[3] Becky Spratford. Phone interview with Kimberly Knight. December 28, 2015.


Spratford, Becky. “Support Groups for Book Discussion Leaders,” Booklist, Vol. 112, No. 8. December 15, 2015.

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